1. Where words come from
On the day photographers come to visit, I am sitting in Mrs. Isaacs’s first grade class in Lynch, in Harlan County, Eastern Kentucky. I am five years old, but I have already written a story and have been told the language is striking. If you do not have a shower or a bath, wash yourself with the rain. I do not know it yet, but language will be my life. That day in my memory, the photographers both have white shirts and black ties. They stand with Mrs. Isaacs at the front of the room and point at us, one and two, girls who then go up to the front of the room. They’re after candidates for Little Miss Lynch, a pretty child whose picture will appear in the weekly newspaper. One and two and three girls go up there, and then one of their pointing fingers turns on me. All you have to do, Mrs. Isaacs says, is stand right here, and she, too, points at the line-up. I huddle next to her, frightened of the cameras and the way the two visitors are sitting now, eyes magnified behind the thick lenses of their glasses. The other little girls are blonde and curly-headed, with full-skirted dresses with crinoline slips. Our feet shuffle as we wait. Notes are taken. You, they say and they mean me and two of the others. You can go sit down. Later on, years from now, I will remember this moment, and I will think of books and books, words igniting in me like crinoline lit and blazing up. I too have glasses, cat-eyed ones, and they make me look, my mother says, way too smart.
2. Books with small print
Don’t get smart with me, this same mother says, some years later. Her auburn hair is wild and uncombed and she looms near my chair where I am reading some book I’m too young to really understand. She rips that book from my hands. Women in Love? What’s that? The things she could tell me about women who choose love. Where, really, is my father on nights when he says he’s at the office? Who am I to think I’m better than her, she asks, reading all these books about nothing. She wanted to be something else herself, a nurse or a teacher maybe, and now, just look at her. She is so angry the pink, wedge-soled house shoe now in her fist shakes.
The boys I take up with, in between the books, find me too smart for my own good. I’m married for awhile and that boy once tapes little notes all over the trailer where we live—notes in the freezer, underneath the toilet lid, on top of my pillow—calling me a smart bitch. And another one, the boy I discard like an old shirt as I get ready for my new college-bound life. He confronts me at work one day. You’re going to be some executive type, he says, spitting these words back at me as he marches down the hall. He raises his hand and his fuck-you finger and all the office ladies watch. Too smart for your own damn good, he says and a blast of winter air slams in before he closes the door on his way out.
In just three months I will graduate from a small liberal arts college for mountain youth in Eastern Kentucky where I have studied philosophy and English lit. I am known, on campus, for being smart. I’ve won awards for my poems about trees and god and my mother’s hands and on campus I’ve been known to walk while reading, books like Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit or Marilyn French, The Women’s Room. I am smart, but not particularly happy and as the weeks until graduation speed ahead I grow quieter and quieter. I don’t have the money to move up north and study literature and religion and writing at Some Big School where, my father says, I’ll be sure to get above my raising. Getting above the Mason-Dixon Line with a ’67 Dodge Dart that spews smoke whenever I start it doesn’t look that feasible anyway. Besides, as my father also says, many highly intelligent people never went to high school, no less having such big dreams. My dreams more and more are of poems and pages and of empty rooms and I find myself growing increasingly quiet. You ought, the professor for whom I’m an assistant says, to speak up more. The more you learn, the more you take charge. My dreams, at night, are of places far from cities and school with spires and lawns. My dreams find me in caves, ones below the sea, ones with smooth stone shelves where I long to sit and think about nothing at all.
Rather than heading north for theology and prose, I end up living for a few years on a cattle farm outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. There is an old house, a pond, an orchard. I work just down the road from the farm—hard, back-breaking work in greenhouses and landscaping that scars up my hands and cleans out my head. Come springtime, I stand all day long with groups of women who transplant seedlings for perennials. We listen to Conway Twitty and George Jones CDs and I love smoking cigarettes with them on breaks and sharing potluck for lunches. I love the long mornings of work, my hands wrist deep in damp black potting soil—I want to reach through the richness and take hold of the right words to describe this solid touch of cool, the scent of decaying earth. Afternoons, I sit in on an upper-level literature seminar on William Faulkner at the University of Virginia, a school I can’t really afford but am attending nonetheless. Many Faulknerian characters are, my professor says, subject to what we might call the tellurian impulse—a yearning for earth and its primal knowledge. I wear my muddy boots to class and smell like sweat. I work and work at soil and at my books, collapsing in exhaustion before I’ve read all I need to read. I fear that I’m not smart enough when I make a B on my first paper, even though he writes the word lovely in the margins, near a sentence that has talked about the way stars are reflected in black pond water at night.
I’ve ended up at a Southern University, one with a teaching stipend and a reasonably good program in creative writing for my final stand in higher learning. There, I will write a novel for my dissertation. I am a good ten years older than most of my peers, and I feel out of place sometimes with my pick-up truck with its mostly empty toolbox on the back. I keep most of my personal history a secret from the literary life I have chosen—my working class self, myself as a birth mother, myself as a self in too many disparate worlds. But I go to classes, go to functions, sip wines with names I can’t pronounce. On alternate Sunday evenings, there is a feminist potluck at a variety of houses and I head to these events eagerly, thinking I will learn something about the woman I want to be, the woman I still am not. We talk Kristeva and Cixous. We contemplate amniotic seas, become deep structures and narrative designs. We argue about novels we have never read. One Sunday, a woman with wild black hair comes racing in from the streets, a nervous wreck, late, she says, because she’s had a flat tire and has left the car ten blocks over and now what should she do. She is crying. I am shy and I say little at these potlucks, fearing I’m not smart enough, keeping to myself my secret knowledge of tire changing.
We create maps for ourselves. Two years of this. Five more of that. A stack of books to read beside the bed and the last one on the list will hold the greatest truth. After all, I am living it. The life of the mind. I teach classes, line shelves with books, attend meetings, sign up for conferences, advise, serve, describe, editorialize, frame diplomas for my wall that prove my worth. After all of the cultivation of my wisdom, I am smart. My career unfolds in front of me like a carefully fabricated set of steps. Still, at night I dream of no shape at all. Fire. Air. I wake up tasting colors. I have begun to long for a language behind the words I make, but I cannot see that far.
Look up the definitions. An instance of sharp pain, mental or physical. Smartness in dress or manners or talk. There is a right smart of folks in Jefferson I don’t understand says Faulkner as he contemplates the time ahead. Smart. Sharply outlined. Clear. Quick. Active. Prompt. Clever. Adept even. Is smart the same thing as wise? The language does not tell me so.
9. But Sometimes
Suppose the carefully marked path meanders all on its own. Cancer, for example. I am nearly fifty years old and I am sitting in a doctor’s office and he is looking at a folder, shielding me from the words that I, as the patient, might not be smart enough to understand and thus have no right to see. To see my own future, I must sign forms, check out records, ask for explanations from doctors who presume I do not understand their language. And if I did? There is a diagnosis. A prediction about the future, and the ways my life now could go. There are definite forks in the path. But anything could summon change down from the sky. A lover’s sudden departure. Deaths of friends. A giant crack could open in the asphalt just ahead of you on the road and who you are could slip through into forever. Wisdom is a gift for the outstretched hand, a message folded nicely, waiting to be read. Do this with your life now, the message says. Or this. Or this. Take your life in your teeth and run with it, scattering all the pages you have written behind in you. Watch them flame up and disappear.
I teach books. Writing them. I tease them out into the world. I’ve been doing this for years and am smart enough to figure out shapes, suggest new patterns, nudge characters and plots to life. But I’m afraid something is missing. Where is the wisdom of the heart? The wisdom of the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands? I hold the pages my students have written in my lap some nights. I close my eyes and touch the words like Braille and try to find a soul there. Soul, I whisper into the dark spaces, the corners of the rooms I inhabit. How fragile it is, that word, how it bends and wrinkles and tears.
What could language look like? The tilt of a bird’s wing up to the sun. The shadow of a cloud moving forward. The silver tongue of an airplane licking at the sky. Letters are not adequate to form images. Words are dull space, listless as sand. Words cannot fill the space left by my longing. Is that what it is to be wise?
12. Smarty Pants
That’s what someone called me once, back when I was an egghead kid who was too big for her britches. I’m still a smart-ass punk. Who am I to think that writing can change the world? That wisdom can be sought and found like a shiny coin forgotten in a pocket?
13. I am nine
When I am nine we go to visit my great grandmother, Beck. She smokes a pipe and wears a cotton dress and anklets with canvas shoes. She frightens me when she pulls me into her lap and whispers next to my neck. You’re a good girl, ain’t you? Smart, too. I escape after awhile and let all of them talk and where I go is the sulfur-water well out back next to a shed. I find a penny in the depths of the pockets of my shorts and I throw it out over the top of the well. I think about stories that have no ending at all. The penny shines and tips as it falls, light as air.
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Other stories and essays have appeared in Iron Horse, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Riverteeth, and in the anthologies An Angle of Vision; To Tell the Truth; Fearless Confessions; Listen Here; Dirt; Family Trouble; and Red Holler. Her writing has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Most recently, she was named Distinguished Alumna at Berea College and her essay, “Strange Tongues,” was the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award from The Bellingham Review. In Spring 2014, she will be the Lewis Rubin Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University.